The West Orange Chief’s Reunion Saturday had a special guest from the Class of ‘68. Dolores Cantu flew in from Hollywood to attend the festivities. Cantu is one of West Orange’s most famous graduates. She has worked in the acting industry in commercials, film and TV for 45 years.
Cantu was taken by surprise when West Orange Mayor Roy McDonald proclaimed April 26, 2014 “Dolores Cantu Day.” She was as giddy as a school girl as he read the account of her life and accomplishments on and off the screen.

Dolores Cantu

Dolores Cantu

One of her most notable feats was that of being the only actress to have ever beaten up John Travolta on screen in “Saturday Night Fever.” You can check out that fight on her YouTube channel online.
Her timeline has been shared in recent local interviews; that she was born in Refugio, moved to West Orange at 13, worked at the Strand theater till graduation and then pursued her dreams, but Cantu said her acting career actually started at the Strand. “We used to dress up to promote the movies. We were out in the streets promoting the movies for people to come. So I guess my first acting roles really did come at the strand theater,” Cantu said with a laugh.

She said her mother was her first dress designer, make-up artist and publicist, because she made all her clothes, sold Avon and brought all her pictures and information to the local paper about her accomplishments.

“Everything I’m doing today started when I was 14 here.”

That is where her love of the big screen developed.

“I would see all the movies.” She talked about the news reels before movies showing Hollywood with the red carpets, furs, jewels and limos. It was so glamorous.

“I thought, oh God, how can I get there!” Cantu laughed. “You gotta dream big!”

She said you have to know which doors to go through along the path.

Dolores Cantu in Fantasy Island

Fantasy Island

“That’s one of the things my mother taught me, you can’t be afraid to walk through the door, because if you never walk through it  you don’t know what’s on the other side and what chances you have,” said Cantu. “My career has been based on the doors opening for me.”
After she left Orange in 1968, she went to Houston to work for Prudential Insurance as a debit clerk. Her landlord then told her they were interviewing girls for Eastern Airlines. “Beautiful girls,” he said.
“I don’t think I’m beautiful,” she replied.
He told her to go on down there. She was selected and became a stewardess Jan.1, 1970. Working as a stewardess at Eastern Airlines was the first door that opened to her for acting. They put her in commercials early on and she was an ambassador for the company. She also represented the airline in the Miss USA/Miss Universe Pageant.

There the judges suggested she become and actress and they opened the door for her. “Every door has been opened for me and I’ve taken that chance.”
Cantu asked the judges if she needed to take acting lessons because she didn’t know anything about it, but they told her, she was beautiful enough she didn’t need it.
“Are you sure?” she asked them.
Then she got an interview with Garry Marshall, who was producing the Brian Keith Show, early on, in Hawaii. Cantu started reading the script, “Jane … Sam …”
Cantu said they asked, “Have you ever seen a script? Have you ever taken an acting lesson?”
“I said ‘No, do you think I need one?’”
They said, “If you want a career, you do.”

Saturday Night Fever

Cantu, back, in Saturday Night Fever.

So she started taking lessons and working in New York. That’s when she got the job on Saturday Night Fever. “It seemed big because it was John Travolta and he was big at that time.” Little did she realize after beating up Travolta, years later she would wind up in the book on “Saturday Night Fever.” Through the years she has collected the little movie reels of everything she did.
She then moved to Hollywood and has been there ever since.
Walking through the right doors led her to roles on shows like Dallas, Falcon Crest, The Young and Restless, Diff’rent Strokes and Fantasy Island; and movies including Force 5 and Annie Hall. She has also appeared in 300-400 commercials.
Looking back over her long career, both on and off the screen, she realizes she was involved in a lot of ‘firsts’ in her lifetime. In 1974 she was in the first McDonald’s commercial for the Hispanic market. There weren’t even Spanish networks yet, they were just beginning to develop.
“There weren’t any Hispanics in the American market, only the little bitty Hispanic market.”

Diffrent Strokes

Diff’rent Strokes

In 1982 she did the first McDonald’s commercial with a Latin speaking English for the American market.

“I feel I was a pioneer in the Hispanic movement, because I was here when it started.”

When she moved to Los Angeles she joined a new organization, Nuestros, to enhance the Hispanic movement. They met with Norman Lear, who was producing “All in the Family” at that time. They did showcases to promote Hispanics. That is how she got “Diff’rent Strokes.”
To get executives to come to these showcases she catered this big event with valet parking and everything. “I had already lived in New York and already worked for a Rockefeller. I knew how to do it right!”

Everybody came.

Cantu said she did a scene from “Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice”.

“I came from under the sheets in a bustier and everybody went whoa! I said well if I’m going to get everybody here, I’m going to dress up!”

Force 5

Force 5

She said producers wanted her to do a movie called Force 5, a karate action movie. They wanted her to play a hostage, but they wanted her to be topless. She refused. She told them there were plenty of actresses they could get. They continued to pursue her.

Cantu said she would compromise and wear a small top and underwear.

When it came time to shoot the scene, they threw a bucket of water on her and told her they compromised, too. Today she laughs about it, but she was trying to dry it out back then. “I met them half way and they met me half way.”

Harrison Ford was asked, when he was doing Star Wars, how do be a successful actor. His reply was that to be a successful actor you need a second occupation. Cantu took that to heart. She had stopped working for Eastern Airlines in 1978 when she moved to Los Angeles. “I need a second occupation,” said Cantu. She didn’t know what to do. She had never gone to college or made very good grades in school. She was drawn to a flower shop. “I didn’t know anything about flowers one. Business two. Or make an arrangement and you really need to know how to make an arrangement if you own a flower shop.”

She began one of the first “bucket” flower shops where flowers are sold by the stem, like you buy in Kroger’s and such today. She wound up with many celebrity customers and even became known as the Holiday Hollywood florist, giving tips and talks on flowers on television shows. Between that and her catering talents, she built a successful second career.

Thirteen years ago this month, she started her talent management company Candu Management because someone asked for her assistance in their career and suggested she should become a manager. Today she helps people break into the business.
“I felt that I’ve been so blessed that so many people helped me. I didn’t know anything. I really wasn’t a business woman. I wouldn’t consider myself the greatest actress in the world, just one of the luckiest.”
“I was fearless,” she said.

About Penny LeLeux

Penny has worked at The Record Newspapers since 2006. A member of the editorial staff, she has "done everything but print it." Most frequently she writes entertainment reviews and human interest stories, with a little paranormal thrown in from time to time.She has been a lifelong member of the Orangefield community.